A fair number of the questions posed to me have to do with whether our salvation is conditional or not, and what part our behavior plays in obtaining and maintaining it, or causing the loss of it. Answers to these and other questions about our relationship with the Lord are found in the Letter to the Hebrews and so I’ve quoted from there on a regular basis. But although I’ve taught Hebrews a number of times from both pulpit and platform, I’ve never before published a comprehensive study of the letter.
The Letter to the Hebrews was written anonymously but there’s been speculation as to its authorship for most of the Church’s history. The earliest recorded suggestion, in 200 AD, was that Barnabas, a learned Jew from the tribe of Levi and one of Paul’s associates, wrote it. From 400 to 1600, it was universally assumed that Paul was the letter’s author. After the reformation Apollos became the leading candidate, probably because Martin Luther had proposed him as being the letter’s most likely author.
Each of these three had the Jewish background and intellectual horsepower to write the letter, but I continue to favor Paul. He had both the strong motivation to write it, having a passionate desire to see his brothers accept their Messiah, and to remain anonymous, since he was considered a turncoat by the Jewish leadership. But while even the mention of his name would incite them to anger, Paul said that he would agree to be cursed and cut off from Christ himself it meant that salvation would come to those of his own race. (Romans 9:3) And while some have challenged Paul’s authorship, claiming that the letter was not written in his typical style, it’s closer to his style than to either Apollos or Barnabas. But the simple fact is that the Letter to the Hebrews was written anonymously at the direction of the Lord who had His own reasons for wanting it that way. And that should be good enough for us.
While no date is given, whoever wrote the letter did so between 35 and 70 AD since there’s no mention of the Temple’s destruction. In fact, it’s referred to in the present tense several times. The letter’s purpose was to document the absolute sufficiency of the Lord’s death as payment in full for man’s sins to the large community of Jewish believers in Israel, many of whom had been priests in the Temple when it happened. Considerable pressure was being exerted upon them to revert to Judaism or at least maintain some sort of hybrid status, blending adherence to the Levitical system with the belief in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.
This attempt to “Judaize” the Gospel was by no means confined to either Jerusalem or the first century. From the time Jesus went to the cross to this very day, man has tried to add his own effort to the salvation equation in a misguided attempt to either complete or maintain what he thinks the Lord only partially accomplished. In doing so He has relegated the Lord’s death to the same status as that of a bull or a goat, insufficient to the task. But from the beginning the letter offers persuasive evidence of the Lord’s deity, another issue that’s still unresolved in the minds of some, making any thoughts of insufficiency even more ridiculous.
So the message of Hebrews is that God became man to accomplish for man what man could never accomplish for himself. All that’s left for us to do, indeed all we can do, is to accept this by faith and enter in to a lifelong rest from the work of our salvation. Everything in the letter has to be considered from this perspective. The conflict between Law and Grace will make itself evident in nearly every chapter, as will the necessity of choosing grace. Clearly this letter has as much to say to us now as it did to them then.
Hebrews Chapter 1
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. (Hebr. 1:1-2)
Immediately the Lord is revealed as the Son of God, His Prophet for the last days, and the one through whom the universe was created. His arrival changed the manner in which God communicated with His people. From now on everything had to conform with the words of the Son. Without any preamble the Lord is portrayed not as a mere man who had lived among them for about 33 years, but as one who, in the words of the Prophet Micah, is from eternity past (Micah 5:2) John would later make the same claim in his Gospel. (John 1:1-3)
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.(Hebr. 1:3)
God is a Spirit, invisible to man. In His Son He became the visible image of Himself, recognizable to man. “When you’ve seen Me you’ve seen the Father,”Jesus said. (John 14:9) And after He died for our sins, He rose again, and ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of Majesty, the work of saving us completed. There were no chairs in the Temple because the purifying work of the priests was never done. After Jesus had (literally by Himself) provided purification for sins, He sat down. The work was finished. There was nothing more to do.
Sometime in the past it had been decided that the Son would become a physical being and when He did it would be forever. So there’s a man sitting on the Throne of God today, an exalted one to be sure, but a man just the same. And when God steps out of time He sees you there too, seated with Him, the example for all eternity of the incomparable riches of His grace. (Ephes. 2:6-7)
So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (Hebr. 1:4) In Hebrew the angels are called, b’nai haElohim, which is translated sons of God. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father [Psalm 2:7] Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” [2 Samuel 7:14] (Hebr. 1:5) In this second reference God was speaking to David about Solomon, but the writer shows that the Messianic Son of David is in view, not just his biological son.
And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (You have to read Deut. 32:43 in the Septuagint to get this one.)
In speaking of the angels he says, “He make his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” [Psalm 104:4]
But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” [Psalm 45:6-7] (Hebr. 1:6-9)
This is an astonishing quote, missed by many. It shows the Father calling the Son “God.” Jesus had said that He is God. John (John 1:1) and Paul (Colossians 1:15) had agreed. But here is God Himself confirming it.
He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” [Psalm 102:25-27] (Hebr. 1:10-12) The Psalmist ascribed this to the Father but the writer of Hebrews is applying it to the Son. Not only did He inhabit eternity past but will inhabit eternity future as well.
To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? [Psalm 110:1] Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:13-14)
The notion that Jesus was an angel, as early gnosticism held and as the Jehovah’s Witnesses still teach, is clearly refuted. While angels exist to minister to God’s people, Jesus is the visible image of God. He was with God in the beginning and He is God. He became flesh and dwelt among us. God in human form.
Hebrews Chapter 2:1-4
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebr. 2:1-4)
Here is the writer’s first warning against drifting back into Judaism. The Law was given at Mt. Sinai with the help of angels. (Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:38, Gal 3:19) If it was binding, refusing to forgive even a single violation, how much more so the remedy, the free gift of Grace given by the Lord Himself and confirmed with witnesses, miracles, and gifts? The two cannot co-exist because there’s no middle ground. In spite of all of its other freedoms, grace does not grant us the freedom to participate in our own salvation by keeping the Law.
This is the no nonsense beginning to a complex letter written to people who obviously had more than a passing understanding of their scriptures. For them it was the bridge from the Torah to the Gospel. For us it’s a challenging look into the Church’s theological foundations as we discover that the bridge goes both ways. More next time.